Daniel Snyder's Best Possible Answer to Critics of the Redskins' Name

The owner could use this opportunity to talk about real reform when it comes to Native American issues.
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Daniel Snyder, owner of Washington's NFL team (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Another football season is upon us, which means another opportunity for America to engage in another autumn ritual—condemnation and praise for the controversial nickname of Washington's professional football team. This always strikes me as hypocritical—bordering on the cruel. As a nation, we spend virtually no time discussing grave issues of concern to Native Americans. Most of us could care less about the way our laws and policies treat them. And yet every fall our airwaves are filled with passionate debate over the merits of a team's nickname. Talk about misplaced priorities.

The brunt of the focus has been on the Redskins' owner, Daniel Snyder, who has been defending his decision to keep the team's name. Some respect this choice. Others scorn it. Few are neutral. None have suggested, however, that Snyder could use the current spotlight to make a critical point about the way in which white America, and black America for that matter, believe they can assuage their guilt over the mistreatment of Native Americans by taking a stand on a symbol rather than by demanding substantive reforms. If Snyder really wants to call out these Helmet Hypocrites, here's what he should say:

To: The American People

From: Daniel Snyder

Re: Washington Redskins

Thank you for your renewed attention to the name of the professional football team I own. I think it's great that we are, again, having a national debate over the sensitivity of the word "Redskins," and that so many people, like Bob Costas and Charles Krauthammer, have seen fit to weigh in on whether the team's name is a "slur" and/or an insult to Native Americans.

We are all entitled to our opinion. Here is mine. Instead of focusing so much attention upon an old symbol that some rightly believe is offensive to American Indians, we might instead focus that attention upon the many vital issues of substantive concern to Native Americans. Instead of debating the merits of a single loaded word found on helmets and jerseys and bumper stickers we should be debating the policies and practices that directly impact the lives of millions of people. An argument over the former, even a well-meant one, is no substitute for action on the latter.

For example, why aren't we talking more as a nation about the lack of Native American judges on the federal bench? Did you know that in the long history of this nation there have been only two and that one of them didn't know of his heritage until he was well into middle age? Did you know that the last American Indian to be nominated and confirmed to the bench was during the Clinton administration—despite the fact that the nation's tribes are governed largely by federal law?

Why aren't we talking more about Arvo Mikkanen? Did you know that President Barack Obama nominated this lawyer, a Native American and member of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Oklahoma, for a spot on the bench two years ago? Did you know that Mikkanen, a Yale Law School graduate and former tribal judge, never even received a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee or a public explanation for why such a hearing never occurred?

Where was the national debate back then when Oklahoma's federal lawmakers simply vanished the nominee? Where was the sensitivity then to the symbolism of American Indian sensitivities? And where is the outpouring of national media support for a recent Native American judicial nominee, from the state of Arizona, made last month by President Obama? Diane Humetewa would be the first female Native American ever on the federal bench. How about a television essay or newspaper column about her?

Did you know that the United States Supreme Court in June issued a decision in a child custody case that significantly undermines the essential protection Native American families are entitled to receive under a federal law called the Indian Child Welfare Act? Justice Antonin Scalia, in dissent, wrote of Dusten Brown, the Native American father involved in the case who lost custody of his little girl. "This father wants to raise his daughter, and the statute amply protects his right to do so. There is no reason in law or policy to dilate that protection."

Why didn't anyone like Costas or Krauthammer, or any veterans group for that matter, stand up for Dusten Brown, who is still today a member of our nation's military?  Right or wrong, why wasn't his case or cause the subject of great national debate? Instead of talking about a football team's name, why aren't we talking today instead about the role of religion in the Brown case or the disturbing revisionist trend some see in these custody and adoption cases, a trend exacerbated by the Supreme Court's ruling, that enables non-Indian couples to get around the protections of the Child Welfare Act?

The new debate over the team's name comes at a time of great anguish for the American people and few have been hurt more by the government shutdown than Native Americans. The economic costs have been great but so have the social ones. And even before the shutdown, during the period of sequestration when many federal programs were cut or limited, American Indian interests in particular were harmed. Did you know that the Indian Health Service, which tries to ensure medical coverage for tribes, was not exempted from the effect of sequestration the way most every other large federal health program was?

When the sequestration began to hit, in March of this year, the chairwoman of the National Indian Health Board told members of a Senate committee: "Since the beginning of the year, there have been 100 suicide attempts in 110 days on Pine Ridge. We can't take any more cuts. We just can't."  Why are so many talking about the nickname of a football team when so few are talking about these suicide attempts on an Indian reservation and our government's inability to adequately fund mental health services for these people?

With these examples, and I could list many more, I do not mean to diminish entirely the power and negative impact the word "Redskins" has upon a great many people in this country. Hey, at least we are talking about something that offends American Indians. But it's sad that as a people we are so willing to talk so openly and earnestly about a single word when we are so utterly unwilling to talk as openly or earnestly about the many official deeds that inflict pain and injustice upon Native Americans. And you all call me hypocritical.

Here's what  Jacqueline Johnson Pata, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, thinks about all this:

While the nation discusses the word ‘Redsk*ns’ as the name for a football team, the conversation does not expand to the other issues of substance for Native Americans—things like the damage the sequester and shutdown have done to our communities, the ongoing struggle to keep our families together through the Indian Child Welfare Act, and the fact that Native-run small businesses do not have the same access to financial institutions and benefits as their non-Native counterparts—none of these things are being resolved or even discussed on a national level.

Tell you what, America, I'll make you a deal. You appoint a handful of worthy American Indians to the federal bench, you ensure the protection of Native American families through a strengthening of the beleaguered Child Welfare Act, you protect the Indian Health Service the way you protect Social Security and Medicare, or at least start talking passionately about these issues, and I'll consider changing the name of my football team to something that is less offensive to you. In other words, come back and complain to me about the word "Redskins" when you are finally serious about truly making lives better and more just for the millions of American Indians in our midst.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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